Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Enrique Pena Nieto and the three little books

Mexican and international commentators are, unsurprisingly, having a field day over presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto's inability to name three books that influenced his life at the Guadalajara Book Fair over the weekend.

But the real story isn't that he hasn't read three books. He has. Of course he has. He's a well-educated man, with a bachelor's degree from the Universidad Panamericana and a master's in business.

The real story is that it is quite possible, with all the posturing and puppeteering going on, both during his governorship and his campaign, with all the political platitudes he's dished out over the years, that he has forgotten how to think for himself. And when asked a question about his own life, his personal life, books that changed that life, he can't actually remember. This might even be more worrisome than if he had not read any books, if he's to be the next president of Mexico.

The Mexican people need a person as their president, not a puppet.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ron Paul and the drug war

Ron Paul is getting a fair bit of credit for some of the matter-of-fact things he said in the last debate, particularly his comments on the drug war. A sampling:

“I think the federal war on drugs is a total failure. You can—you can at least let sick people have marijuana because it’s helpful, but compassionate conservatives say, well, we can’t do this; we’re going to put people who are sick and dying with cancer and they’re being helped with marijuana, if they have multiple sclerosis—the federal government’s going in there and overriding state laws and putting people like that in prison. Why don’t we handle the drugs like we handle alcohol? Alcohol is a deadly drug. What about—the real deadly drugs are the prescription drugs. They kill a lot more people than the illegal drugs. So the drug war is out of control. I fear the drug war because it undermines our civil liberties. It magnifies our problems on the borders. We spend—like, over the last forty years, $1 trillion on this war. And believe me, the kids can still get the drugs. It just hasn’t worked.”

On the surface, the guy seems smart, and almost compassionate. Calling it like he sees it; even echoing the anti-drug war, left-leaning crowd which argues that the $1 trillion spent on a drug war that has not really reduced consumption and has only filled up U.S. prisons. According to some media reports, Paul really caught the attention of the so-called youth vote with these comments.

But look closer: Paul goes on to mention the "real deadly drugs." Prescription pills. Anyone know what the DEA's new No. 1 priority is? Going after, yes, prescription pills.

Now, I'm not a drug war-basher just for the sake of bashing, as anyone who has read The Last Narco will tell you. I'm not really for drugs, nor really against them, except when they clearly destroy lives. Personally, I don't like them because I prefer beer.

I'll even go so far as to say that I support the drug war as it exists today, because I haven't seen a truly viable alternative (no, nationwide legalization is not viable, because it won't ever happen.)

But what I don't support are politicians twisting their own opinions to pander to certain crowds. If the DEA makes pills its priority, does anyone really think the war on traffickers of other drugs will ease up? Why would it? An all-out war on pills would mean a bigger budget because you've got one more illicit substance to go after; that budget could and most likely would be allocated pretty much anywhere a vast bureaucracy likes.

Again, I'm all for going after pills, and the people who sell them to unsuspecting victims illegally. It's a sordid affair, and needs to be stopped. But please, don't pretend to be against a $1 trillion war that will only continue if you go after the pills!

It's this easy: I, ––––––––, think the DEA should go after prescription pills, perhaps the deadliest drug threat of them all. I recognize that the drug war has not entirely succeeded, especially in the eyes of many critics, and we need to seriously examine how to better combat the drug scourge in the future. Debating legalization is futile, unless you, the American people, decide to actually vote for it (California didn't; I somehow doubt the rest of you will). So in the meantime, we will add prescription pills to the long list of illicit substances our authorities will go after, and do our utmost to fix the underlying societal issues that are turning our kids to drugs.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chapo's cash and clean soldiers

Following the news that the Mexican military seized $15 million in cash allegedly belonging to Chapo in Tijuana, I want to bring up a point that is rarely mentioned in the drug war: the soldiers actually brought the cash in.

Imagine stumbling upon $15 million in cash. You've searched a car, and there, just sitting there, is $15 million. You could pocket that cash and walk across the border into the US, and you'd never be heard from again. Neither you nor I can really fathom that amount of money. Nor, if we are entirely honest, can we imagine not being tempted to walk off with it. Yet these soldiers turned the money in to their superiors. They didn't take any of it (as far as we know). Kudos.

Incidentally, most news reports are claiming that this is the second-largest seizure of cash during the Calderon administration. It's actually the third. Here's an account (from The Last Narco) of the largest seizure and how a few honest cops refrained from taking a slice of the $207 million that was seized in Zhenli Ye Gon's Mexico City mansion.

//Antonio (not his real name) once helped lead a raid on a mansion in the swanky Mexico City district of Lomas de Chapultepec. The property belonged to Zhenli Ye Gon, a Chinese-Mexican businessman who the authorities believed was importing methamphetamine precursors for Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel.

Antonio and his crew found an enormous stash of cash in the mansion: 207 million in US dollars, 18 million Mexican pesos, 200,000 euros, 113,000 Hong Kong dollars and nearly a dozen gold bullion coins.

Antonio and another top police commander (his superior, on that occasion) wanted to make sure none of the cops walked off with any of the loot. So they ordered their men to empty their pockets and remove their clothes prior to leaving the scene. They did; no one had stolen anything. The other commander and his men then began to leave, but Antonio blocked him. No, everyone, he told the ranking man. What my men do, I do. So the two of them stripped down to their underwear.

Antonio and his superior (as well as their subordinates) were both clean – that time. But the superior officer would later be charged with links to organized crime and, specifically, receiving vast amounts of cash from one cartel in exchange for information on anti-narco operations.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

No. 2 No. 5

While all the recent news has focused on the helicopter crash that killed Interior Secretary Francisco Blake Mora and of course, the conspiracy theories surrounding it, few journalists have pointed out that he is not only the second No. 2 to die in an aviation tragedy during this administration; his death makes successor Alejandro Poire the fifth interior secretary in as many years.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mexican interior minister dies in helicopter crash

So the Mexican authorities have declared Francisco Blake Mora dead, after a helicopter crash outside of Mexico City. Blake Mora, the nation's interior minister, or No. 2, was headed to Cuernavaca.

This is the second interior minister to die in an aviation disaster during the Calderon administration – the first, Juan Camilo Mourino, was a close friend and ally of Calderon's, and died in a plane crash in Mexico City on Nov. 4, 2008.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, but seriously, this is all very suspect no matter how one looks at it. At the very least, it's time Mexican officials got either a) better helicopters/planes or b) better pilots.

My condolences to the families of the eight who died in the most recent crash.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chapo on Forbes' list

Once again, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has been named to Forbes' list of most powerful people in the world, occupying the no. 55 spot for no apparent reason.

Well, Forbes gives reasons, ie, a methodology of sorts. Forbes measured "how many people a person has power over." It looked at the person's "financial resources," then asked whether "a candidate [is] influential in more than one arena, or sphere." Lastly, Forbes "gave consideration to how actively the candidates wield their power."

Patrick Corcoran has some good thoughts on the matter here:

My thoughts, as someone who has researched Chapo for a fair amount of time now:

One thing to take into account on power lists is the fear factor. For instance, mention the name of President Felipe Calderon in Sinaloa, and you will most likely elicit a chuckle. I like Calderon, and I respect him, but that doesn't change the fact that in places like Sinaloa, people regard him as a pendejo.
Mention Chapo's name, on the other hand, and you get fear, awe, trembles, respect. That's power.

And what about his power as a brand? In 2007, Chapo was being written off by everyone in Mexico. Now, his name is as well-known as Pablo Escobar's. When one thinks of the global drug trade, one thinks of Chapo. Some idiot rapper even named his album after him.

I think another criteria for power should be likely effect of death or departure. For instance, if President Barack Obama resigned tomorrow for no apparent reason, the world would be in shock. There would be ripple-effects all over the place. Everyone would be wondering what happened, why, buzzing about what might happen next.

If Chapo were to retire tomorrow, or die, or be captured, what would happen? It's all speculation, but there would likely to be serious violence throughout Sinaloa, perhaps throughout Mexico. I still believe there are contingency plans in place for retaliation against the authorities if they nail him. (Disclaimer: this is based on no evidence whatsoever, just a hunch.)

Lastly, what about connections to power? A senior Mexican general was allegedly sent by a high-ranking administration official to talk to Chapo to ask him to contain the levels of violence in Sinaloa. When a member of the army – undoubtedly the most powerful entity in the country, at least officially – is sent to talk to you, to effectively ask for your assistance, that is power indeed.

Long story short, I think Chapo should be included on Forbes' list. But I think they should have included a little more info on why he belongs there, given how murky details on his financial resources etc really are.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Enique Krauze weighs in

Mexican historian and publisher Enrique Krauze has written a piece for Bloomberg View which several friends have sent along, recommending on Facebook and the like.

As a big fan of Krauze (ok, I admit I have never read more than three paragraphs of his stuff, but I've always wanted to write for Letras Libres) I eagerly opened the link to the article.

This is what I got:

"Mexico, battered by an interminable narco war, hasn’t found a firm consensus on how to combat organized crime."

My response: Mexico's congress, often battered by its own stubbornness, hasn't found a firm consensus on much in recent years. Just look at the gridlock since 2000. Police reforms are stuck there for a reason. As for Mexicans, well, polls do show that more than 70 percent of people favor the death penalty for narcos, and more than 80 percent support the use of the military in the drug war.

"In Spain, which has been plagued by the violence of the Basque group ETA, such a consensus was slow to develop..."

My response: ETA is not and never was part of a multi-billion dollar industry. Please don't compare rotten apples and rancid oranges.

"A major factor impeding agreement on a program of action is a rejection, by many Mexicans, of the law-enforcement policies pursued by President Felipe Calderon. Nevertheless, in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of respondents approved of the government’s deployment of the army against the cartels."

My response: Did I miss something here? Did you just undercut your own argument in the following sentence?

"Yet a strong undercurrent of opposition to Calderon’s strategy has been expressed in the recent countrywide marches of the Movement for Peace, founded by the poet Javier Sicilia after his son was murdered by men connected with a drug cartel for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as has happened to so many innocents in recent years."

My response: Come on, Dr Krauze. You know full well that Sicilia's movement, as moving and inspiring as it seems, is not likely to be very different from past movements, led by the likes of Alejandro Marti. Marches bring awareness, but right now, Mexico is hardly an under-reported news story of yesteryear. People need security now, not some poet speaking out and shedding tears on their behalf and taking up the president's time by having a nice little televised dialogue with him about things he already knows and is trying to fix.

"A complete acceptance of Calderon’s strategies is by no means required to secure a broad national consensus against organized crime."

My response: Thank God for that. I'm no fan of authoritarianism, but Calderon is the president, and definitely needs some leeway to just do what he thinks is right. He shouldn't have to ask permission on every detail of his plan; sometimes I wonder if some Mexican pundits have taken this whole democracy thing a bit far.

"Like many others, I would criticize the overwhelming emphasis on a military solution... [and the lack of] focus on the corrupt connections between power and crime."

My response: No one has said the military is a solution. Every single government official that I know of says the eventual aim is to get the military back in the barracks as soon as it is possible. It has done so on several occasions in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, only to have to bring them back in. As for focusing on the corrupt connections between power and crime, well, I would agree with that if the Calderon administration hadn't thrown its drug czar in jail, arrested a top DEA-backed commander, thrown 30 or so Michoacan officials and mayors in jail (let's ignore the fact that they were later released due to lack of evidence), and so on. Sure, much more needs to be done, but Operation Clean House wasn't all smoke and mirrors.

"A society mobilized to confront so grave a problem as the cartel violence in Mexico cannot tolerate inefficiency and corruption in its political leaders. But it must be equally firm in its rejection of, and active opposition to, criminals."

Response: Agreed.

A link to the article is in the title of this post.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Back in 2008, Mexican officials called on the people of Mexico to rise up and do their part against organized crime. Report incidents and suspicious activity, top officials urged. It's up to you to fight organized crime, not us.

At the time, the request seemed a little off colour, ridiculous even. Tens of thousands of people were dying, shootouts in public places were becoming more common.

But the government was right: the people had to do something, at the very least gain confidence in their ability to report crimes and not become victims themselves.

The authorities set up some anonymous hotlines in cities like Culiacan, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. They got some calls. Some tips were worth acting on. Then the calls stopped coming.

The callers were getting killed. The local police were simply noting down the numbers of the callers, checking in the phone company, and passing a list of the numbers/names off to the narcos.

Human rights activists caught wind of it, and warned the brave folks who still might dare to report illicit activity: call from a payphone. Never use your home phone or mobile. Never give your real name. Don't stay on the line too long.

The denuncias anonimas kept coming. They still are to this day. There have been few reprisals that I know of.

That's what the authorities had in mind when they called on people to take matters into their own hands.

The video released by people purporting to be the hacker group Anonymous is an interesting new twist. Reporting information about a shootout on twitter is one thing, threatening the Zetas head-on is another. I still am not quite sure what this group hopes to achieve. Los Zetas can track hackers if they are local. They don't really care about the names of officials being publicized, because most people already assume who is involved, thanks to the Mexican penchant for secretos a voces. Publishing names anonymously might implicate someone who is not a criminal; at best, it will only likely reaffirm the public's suspicions about official so-and-so. Hard evidence, if the group has it, should go straight to the federal authorities – perhaps on the condition that if the authorities do nothing, the group will publish it, if trust in said authorities is lacking.

Going after Los Zetas, as many commentators have already written, could be really dangerous. There is no clear goal, and Los Zetas, let's remember, do not hesitate to behead people when they deem it necessary.

I want the violence in Mexico to end just as much as the next guy. But the only thing I can see coming out of the Anonymous threat is more violence. I cannot see a serious challenge to Los Zetas anywhere in this.

I welcome comments, particularly from people who have been to Veracruz recently or actually, anywhere in Zeta territory, because it's been a few years since I was there.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Drug war opposition and support

I wrote a short piece on the polarity of voices in the drug war, for Voice of Mexico, a friend's web site. Here it is (link in title of the post, too)

Creel's drug war plan

PAN presidential hopeful Santiago Creel on Wednesday pulled a smart political move by declaring he would break with the current drug war strategy (which he condemned) and then laying out plans that fit perfectly into the currently designed template.

Creel, no ally of Calderon within PAN circles, said he would change "everything" if elected in 2012. "The direct, frontal, expansive strategy is a strategy that should end with this administration."

Creel said that he would begin to take the army off the streets - he gave a 24-month withdrawal timeframe – and insisted the priority should be going after the cartel's revenue streams, going after money laundering, and cleaning up prisons.

This is no different from Calderon's strategy. In fact, according to a senior official I spoke with about the matter about a year ago, it is considered to be Phase 4 of the current drug war plan. So, clearly, Creel has calculated that by bashing the current administration's strategy, he will win political points with an increasingly disillusioned electorate, while also appeasing the powers that be inside the PAN (and of course, winning friends internationally – the US has invested $1.4 billion in Merida Initiative money towards this drug war strategy; so does anyone think things are going to change dramatically in the next sexenio?)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Calderon interview with NY Times/Chapo stuff

The New York Times interview with President Felipe Calderon is really pretty interesting, if you read the Spanish transcript rather than the edited version. (Link in title of post.)

I won't analyze it, or go into the statements about the PRI, but will comment on his remarks about Chapo, which are now generating buzz in Mexican dailies.

Here's what he says: (in response to a question about Chapo's wife giving birth to twins in a Los Angeles hospital and how she might have made it there)

Calderon: Well that you have to ask US border authorities. Because the [customs/immigration checkpoint] one has to cross in order to get to Los Angeles is American, not Mexican. If Chapo was in Los Angeles I'd ask the Americans why they didn't catch him. I don't know if he was in Los Angeles, but those are questions I have.

NYT: But he/she (unclear from context whether NYT is referring to Chapo or his wife) had to travel across Mexican territory to get to LA.

Calderon: He/she is not in Mexican territory, and I suppose/guess that Chapo is in US territory. Here the surprising thing is that he or his wife are so comfortable in the United States, which makes me ask myself... How many families [of drug lords] or capos would be more comfortable on the northern side of the border than on the southern side? What does Chapo Guzman gain by having his family in the United States?

Calderon, speaking about Chapo and other capos: Chapo, like other leaders, Los Zetas, Lazcano... these are very protected people, people who have very complex cover networks. In the specific case of El Chapo, we suspect his area of influence extends through the Sierra Madre Occidental, between the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa, which allows him great mobility and regardless of what operations we conduct to catch him, he has a way of detecting [the authorities] at dozens of kilometers distance, hours away.

Certainly, during my administration, the Mexican army has arrived, probably twice, at a site where Chapo had been just hours before. Sooner or later, he and other leaders will fall.

NYT: Do you want Chapo dead or alive?
Calderon: Frankly, I don't wish death upon anyone.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Them's fightin' words

I might have to reconsider my last post: La Jornada has published a scathing editorial in the aftermath of Fast and Furious, asking whether the United States is an "ally or enemy?"

Link in title of the post.

Global Post piece on US military assistance to Mexico

Global Post has an interesting story on US military assistance to Mexico. (Link in title of post).

The headline: US troops aid Mexico in drug war... The US doesn't need to invade — it's already there.

The piece, by Ioan Grillo (admittedly a very good foreign correspondent in Mexico), is decent, and outlines the ways in which the U.S. is offering assistance to Mexico in the drug war.

Then, however, Grillo proceeds to write: "But few in the U.S. are aware how entrenched their military machine has already become south of the Rio Grande. The rising American presence has caused consternation in Mexico, a strongly nationalist country that annually celebrates the ninos heroes, child soldiers who died fighting the U.S. in 1847.
Some commentators here say new American involvement violates Mexico’s constitution."

True, some commentators have indeed noted their offense to US assistance on the ground; they have also expressed unease at the amount of US agents (DEA, FBI, ICE) on their soil.

"Some commentators."

This is important; over the past few years, there's been a notable shift in US-Mexican relations, one that few media have dared report. The shift is this: there has been very little public outcry (even from the traditionally anti-gringo Left) over US assistance in the drug war. Even La Jornada has refrained from outright gringo-bashing, because, well, they realize Mexico needs all the help it can get. "Consternation?" Not to much.

So what's the point of this statement in the Global Post article? In my mind, it's simply an attempt to rile people up, to try and throw a spanner in the works by harkening back to bygone eras of nationalist fervor – rather than a real effort at serious reporting of a serious issue.

I welcome thoughts on this subject. Sovereignty is obviously an important issue in this drug war, and it's important to put Rick Perry's comments in proper context. But as reporters, I think it's equally important to look for the facts and then make the point, rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Chronology of bloodshed

The video released by the matazetas just recently has some new elements to it, and the killing of 35 alleged zetas in Veracruz seems to be a ratcheting up of drug violence. So I thought I'd do a quick recap of the violence, and how it has evolved. I welcome any incidents that I've left out:

2005 – Video featuring La Barbie and his men interrogating, torturing and then killing four alleged Zetas is uploaded onto the Internet.

Sept. 2006 – Five heads are rolled onto a dance floor at the Sol y Sombra nightclub in Uruapan, Michoacan. La Familia takes credit, mentions "divine justice."
This is the first mention of religion in context of drug cartel violence. It is not the first beheading, but it garners much media attention.

Also in late 2006, the head of a decapitated Acapulco policeman is placed on a pike outside of the police station.

2007 - Narcomantas start appearing on overpasses throughout Mexico, often accompanied by dead bodies of rival narcos. Some of the messages taunt rivals, others accuse the authorities (as high up as the president) of collusion with groups like the Sinaloa cartel. Some narcomantas, attributed to Los Zetas, attempt to lure soldiers to the other side with offers of "better salaries and benefits."

During 2007 and 2008, beheadings become commonplace. Dozens of heads, sometimes left in coolers, are discovered alongside roads throughout Mexico. A couple are even discovered at Mexico City's airport.

August 2008 – Thirteen apparent innocents – including several teenagers, a 4-year-old and a 16-month-old – are massacred in the Chihuahua town of Creel.

January 2009 – 'El Pozolero' is arrested. Confesses to having dissolved more than 300 bodies in caustic soda for one drug cartel.

Early 2009 – In Caborca, Sonora, a gang of Sinaloa cartel hitmen kidnap a group of rivals. Limb by limb, they saw them to bits.

Some time also in 2009, the headless bodies of two men are thrown out of a small plane flying over Sonora. Stunned farmers discover them shortly after.

September 2, 2009 – An attack on a rehab center in Ciudad Juarez leaves 18 dead. This would be the first of several attacks on rehab clinics nationwide.

In 2009, there were more than 300 beheadings throughout Mexico.

Around New Year's Eve, 2009: A thirty-six-year-old man is found dead in Sinaloa. His body has been cut into seven pieces. His face has been carved off, delicately. It was later found, stitched on to a football. A note was left with the ball: "Happy New Year, because this will be your last."

August 2010 - The bodies of 72 migrants are found in a mass grave in Tamaulipas.

December 2010 – 14-year-old Edgar Jimenez Lugo is arrested, confesses that he worked as a sicario and participated in four executions.

February 2011 – Sicarios fail to find their target in Ciudad Juarez, so kill his three daughters (aged 12, 14, and 15) instead.

March 2011 – A state police commander in Chihuahua is attacked as she walks her 5-year-old daughter to school; both die of gunshot wounds.

Also in March, a young woman is bound and gagged, shot and abandoned in a car in Acapulco. Her 4-year-old daughter is discovered next to her, killed with a single bullet to the chest. That same week, according to the Washington Post, four other kids are killed in Acapulco.

April 2011 – 193 dead bodies found in a mass grave in Tamaulipas.

May 2011 – More than 180 bodies are dug up at five sites in Durango.

There are more incidents, obviously, but these are the ones that spring immediately to mind.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The matazetas

In the aftermath of the recent killings in Veracruz, there's been a lot of talk about the so-called "matazetas," apparently an alliance between la Gente Nueva (originally from Sinaloa), la Generacion Nueva de Jalisco (from Jalisco) and possibly, the Gulf cartel. The Wall Street Journal has a fine piece on the subject and the fears of paramilitarization. (Link in title of post)

Contrary to conventional wisdom (if there is any such thing in Mexico's drug war), the Matazetas are nothing new. Around 2004, when a Sinaloa cartel-backed kill squad known as Los Negros moved into Nuevo Laredo to take on the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas, the name "matazetas" was born (to the best of my knowledge, that is the first time it was mentioned.)

Then in 2005/2006, when La Barbie took it upon himself to work with La Gente Nueva and try to instill the fear of God in Los Zetas in Tamaulipas, the term matazetas became commonplace. (One of the infamous videos of La Barbie's men executing Zetas, which were later uploaded onto the Internet, was titled "Be a patriot, kill a Zeta.") Throughout Tamaulipas, if you ask anyone with a decent memory, they'll tell you stories of the matazetas, and the fears that residents had back then that these apparent vigilantes, or paramilitaries as some are calling them, might take over. They might even admit that they preferred the Zetas running the show.

Throughout 2007, Veracruz was in the midst of a raging turf war, too – the violence there is not that new, although it does appear to have intensified with the latest killing of 35 Zeta-affiliated gangsters. Back in 2007, Los Zetas was under threat from an armed wing of La Gente Nueva, according to newspaper reports. Chapo was trying to take the plaza.

The local Veracruz chapter of La Gente Nueva went by another name, too, according to a Dec. 16, 2007, story in Mexico's leading newspaper, El Universal.

"They're known as Los matazetas," wrote correspondent Edgar Avila Perez.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The significance of Veracruz

So 35 bodies were dumped in full display in Veracruz. (Link to AP story in title of post)

The significance of this latest massacre should not be understated, in my view. Veracruz is traditionally a Zeta-Gulf cartel stronghold. I last went there in late 2008, and everything you could imagine was said to be run by Zetas. Bars, nightclubs, hotels – if you named it, locals likely identified it as a Zeta operation.

Real Zetas, mind you, not the young thugs running around the country currently calling themselves Zetas for shits and giggles and to make a name for themselves.

Rumor (based on a narcomanta allegedly left at the scene) has it that Chapo's Gente Nueva were responsible for the latest killings.

If that's the case, and Chapo's people are moving in on Zeta turf in the southeast/gulf region, then this could spell serious trouble for an already volatile area.

For several decades, the southeast corner of Mexico (Veracruz is at what I consider to be the tip of that corner) has been inhabited by both the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa cartel. I don't know details of the arrangement by which they co-existed, but there is sufficient evidence that both big groups have been allowed to operate in the states of Veracruz, Quintana Roo and Yucatan. Veracruz and Cancun have both served as useful ports of entry for cocaine coming in from Colombia, as well as shipping points for drugs destined to Europe.

So if Chapo's people are indeed going after rivals in Veracruz (the city), it could signal a shift of some kind. We already know that US officials believe the Gulf cartel leadership and the Sinaloa cartel have formed an alliance against the renegade Zetas, so this may be just another sign of that move.

But we also know that the Sinaloa cartel is hellbent on expanding its operations, particularly to Europe, where drug consumption is up and law enforcement is down (would be nice to have a port like Veracruz in one's control). We also know that the goal of the Mexican authorities is not to end drug trafficking altogether (an impossibility) but to make it so difficult to traffic through Mexico that the cartels have to look elsewhere.

Back to the Caribbean, for instance.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Games without frontiers

In early 2009, a lawyer believed to be representing the Sinaloa cartel named Humberto Loya-Castro allegedly approached DEA agents in an attempt to introduce them to a client of his – Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the son of El Mayo Zambada, and according to U.S. Justice Department indictments, ranked as high as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in the Sinaloa cartel.

Loya-Castro allegedly indicated to the agents that Zambada-Niebla might be interested in cooperating with the authorities. DEA agents in Mexico apparently obtained permission from higher-ups in Washington, D.C. to conduct a preliminary introductory meeting with Zambada-Niebla, arranging to meet the lawyer and his client in Mexico City on March 18.

According to what appears to be a government response to a motion filed by Zambada-Niebla in a Chicago court (where he is now on trial), two DEA agents flew to Mexico City on March 17, where they met with their Mexico City-based counterparts; their superior in Mexico City at the time allegedly met with them and "expressed concern" about U.S. agents meeting with such a high-level member of a cartel. According to the document, the ranking agent ordered his subordinates to call off their attempts to meet with Zambada-Niebla unless they received further explicit authorization to do so.

DEA agents then allegedly met with Loya-Castro at a Mexico City hotel to break the news. But shortly after, Loya-Castro apparently returned to the hotel, Zambada-Niebla in tow. The DEA agents then allegedly informed the lawyer that they could not meet with Zambada-Niebla, who purportedly "indicated that he simply wished to convey personally his interest and willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government.

This all is supposed to have happened on March 17, 2009. In the wee hours of March 18, Zambada-Niebla was arrested by Mexican authorities in the Lomas de Pedregal neighborhood of Mexico City (pic of the house above, courtesy of Google maps). In February 2010, he was extradited to the United States.

NOTE: The information above was obtained from a PDF of what appears to be the government response to Zambada-Niebla's motion, which was posted on the web. I can't vouch for the veracity of the document, hence my use of "allegedly" and "apparently" above. More information as I find out more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Viva Mexico!

In honour of Mexican Independence Day, here's a recap of how I spent the celebrations two years ago, in Badiraguato, Sinaloa. (Excerpted from The Last Narco)

As the rain fell hard, the last of Badiraguato’s revellers could be heard, singing, yelling profanities, stumbling or driving drunkenly home after the Independence Day festivities. They had just enjoyed a peaceful celebration – no violence at all, no shootings – much to the delight of local government and residents.

Some local narcos, sporting gold chains, guns and fancy cowboy boots, had filed into the square at about 9 p.m. to listen to the live traditional banda tunes with the rest of Badiraguato, but they’d caused no trouble. Some were surely just wannabe narcos, too, dressing like those they aspire to become.

A group of mothers, lined up in a row along the side of the plaza, looked on as one young narco grabbed the hand of a beautiful brown-haired girl of about fourteen. She was decked out in stilettos, an open-backed top and a short skirt. Her long nails were neatly painted, specks of glitter on her cheek reflected in the lighting. He dragged her out in front of the band and they began to dance sloppily – like teenagers – as the brass banda group churned out another lively, upbeat tune.

Normally, the sight of an apparent drug trafficker and a dolled-up teen princess dancing to what can only be described as circus music would be sidesplitting. But in Badiraguato it’s the norm – the narcos love their banda, and they love their princesses.

There was an air of calm to Badiraguato that Independence Day, 15 September 2009. The previous year had been a troubled one; homicides had dominated the talk of the town. ‘Mochomo’ – a nickname meaning ‘fire ant’ given to Alfredo Beltran Leyva – and Chapo had been at war, and no one really knew who was in charge any more. But now, with a pact between the feuding kingpins, there was control again and the violence was declining.

Soldiers in the shadowy barracks at the far end of Badiraguato peered out over the walls to catch a glimpse of the festivities – they had not been invited but they would enjoy as much of the moment as they could. Some residents glared at the soldiers; all opted for silence while walking by. Only when they were out of the soldiers’ earshot did they resume their conversations.

The air of calm in Badiraguato felt precariously temporary. The Sierra of Sinaloa was not what it once was. For several years, the region had been what one resident called a ‘marked zone’. The military was ever-present, but so were the narcos. By and large, the military avoided conflict, but that didn't mean the narcos weren't duking it out among themselves.

Homicide had become so common in Sinaloa that it cost a mere $35 to have a rival murdered.

On 15 September 2009, Independence night in Badiraguato, some locals hoped to see Chapo there. A group of local narcos had conducted a thorough review of their operations to make sure the marijuana was growing and being delivered at the pace they had promised. When he arrived, Chapo would be pleased.

A helicopter circled overhead before the fireworks began. The next morning, the helicopter appeared again. The military was watching, waiting.

Chapo never came.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

From the Dept. of Terrible Headlines

Fox News has a new story about the Mexican drug war, with the headline: Is Mexico our ally or our Enemy?

This is inflammatory nonsense. Disagree as the two nations might about what to do with the drug cartels and drug consumption, Mexico and the United States are allies, always will be (contrary to George Friedman's prediction that war will break out in the next 100 years between the two countries) and the media and politicians should stop stirring things up at a time when cooperation is at an all-time high, and is absolutely crucial to progress.

There is such a thing as a stupid question

El Universal has a list of questions for readers on its web site, including one about making a pact with the narcos. The nonsensical nature of the questions just about sums up the feasibility of making such a pact.

¿Te parece que debe pactarse con criminales?
* ¿Crees que es posible vivir de la basura?
* ¿Y tú, respetas a los policías?
* ¿Te gustaría llegar vivir más de 100 años?

The final straw?

I'm usually a big fan of Global Post, but a recent blog item caught my attention for its lack of insight. (Link in title of post).

The author asks whether the Monterrey attack is "Mexico’s final straw," and then goes on to say that "Mexicans have protested before, demanding an end to mass graves and kidnappings amid the drug violence. In the past, little has changed. This time, though, it seems like the people's anger may have helped bring about some results."

The results: the arrest of five suspects.

Anyone who has covered Mexico, or even observed it from a distance for some time, knows that suspects are often arrested after incidents like this, after mass protests, after public outcry, after political calls for justice. Anyone who knows Mexico also knows that due to lack of good investigations, god only knows whether the alleged culprits are indeed guilty.

I'll keep reading Global Post, but I would prefer if it didn't feed into the pro-Sicilia people power hype and instead kept a more level-headed sense of perspective on Mexico.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Just when you thought you knew something

Various media (including the Associated Press, link in title of post) have stories out about the Sinaloa cartel's apparent expansion into meth production. The reports – citing US law enforcement officials in Mexico (ie, DEA) – come on the heels of some massive meth busts. One was in Queretaro, where authorities seized nearly 500 tons of precursors (the chemicals used to make meth, which are banned in Mexico). Another seizure in Queretaro netted 3.4 tons of pure meth, worth about $100 million, according to the AP.

Mexican authorities also seized a 300-foot meth lab buried underground in Sinaloa. The authorities and the media have put two and two together, speculating that the Sinaloa cartel is increasing its interest in meth and trying to take over from the splintered La Familia as the major meth producer in Mexico.

There are several problems with this logic: While meth production in Mexico began in Michoacan (and Colima) under the Amezcua brothers in the 1980s, El Chapo Guzman and his Sinaloa crew moved into the business at least as early as 2003. They knew it was a golden opportunity.

Since then, massive meth labs have regularly been seized in Sinaloa, including one in 2009 which had the capacity to produce about 20 tons of meth – US street value, $700 million – in a month. Another meth compound in Durango was seized in the summer of the same year – it boasted top-of-the-range technology (internet, satellite tv, sat phones etc) and was nicknamed "El paraiso de cristal." Chapo was believed to have hidden out there, along with Nacho Coronel, who incidentally was nicknamed the "Ice King" because of his meth interests.

It should also be noted that La Familia has NEVER had the clout that the Sinaloa or Gulf cartel have had. When La Familia started rising up, it's believed that Chapo struck a deal with the Michoacan-based group – La Familia would produce the meth, the Sinaloa cartel would distribute it. After all, La Familia lacks a smuggling corridor into the United States, therefore must always rely on one of the bigger groups to allow it passage.

In the AP story, the US official is also quoted as saying the Sinaloa cartel has a better distribution network in the US than La Familia. This is absolutely right, as the Sinaloa cartel enjoys longer working relationships with US gang counterparts, probably has a better foothold of its own when it comes to distribution, while La Familia can only really rely on unestablished opportunists and fellow Michoacanos (hence a large suspected La Familia presence in Chicago, which is home to a very large community of Michoacan expats).

And yet: the DEA recently announced the results of Project Delirium, a 20-month series of US investigations targeting La Familia. 1,985 arrests were made, $62 million in U.S. currency was seized, as well as 2,773 pounds of methamphetamine, 2,722 kilograms of cocaine, 1,005 pounds of heroin, 14,818 pounds of marijuana and $3.8 million in other assets.

On Oct. 22, 2009, the DEA announced the results of Project Coronado, a 44-month series of investigations which resulted in the arrest of more than 1,186 alleged members of La Familia.

I have a few problems with these two operations: Heroin is not produced in large quantities in Michoacan. La Familia is from Michoacan. Are you telling me that La Familia, the cartel (as it's called by the DEA), is running heroin for another cartel? Sounds iffy to me. There have been cases of independent operators working in Michoacan, stockpiling poppy bought in Guerrero and then distributing it on up north, but to the best of my knowledge, these guys have not been members of La Familia, and my speculation (based on their last names and connections that have been made public) is that they were Sinaloans.

Second, Project Coronado was 44-months in the making. Forty-four months before Oct. 22, 2009, La Familia had yet to exist, or at least be known, outside of small towns in Michoacan. The group had yet to throw heads on a dance floor in Uruapan, for instance. I find it difficult to believe that the DEA had such great inside sources that they knew about La Familia's rise even before the Mexican authorities, who admitted quite bluntly in 2006 and even 2008 (the grenade attack in Morelia) that they really didn't have any idea of La Familia's growing clout.

Last point to a long-winded post: I believe we will see a global rise in meth production and distribution in the coming years, as the world works itself out of a recession. Meth is cheap to produce, cheap to sell, cheap to buy and as cheap a high as you're likely to find. Recession-proof, to say the least.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My thoughts on Monterrey

Just wrote a piece for Foreign Policy about Mexico's latest atrocity, the torching of a casino in Monterrey that left at least 52 dead. Link is in title of the post.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meeting Saviano

The call came in the evening. He will see you, Mr. Malcolm. His security team has cleared your visit. You will meet with him in the late morning.

We drove through the hills, the lush vegetation surrounding us on all sides. A few miles outside of the city, and we were the only people on the road. We continued on for about 15 minutes.

We turned into the driveway of a villa. It's a hotel now, but it was once owned by a wealthy family from Perugia.

The bodyguards met us at the door.

"He's waiting in his quarters. He's ready to see you," one of them said.

I walked across the gardens, past the swimming pool, to a room – most likely, it was normally used as a conference room by visitors on business.

Today, it was empty. Empty, save a table in the middle, with three chairs.

I sat down. I was sweating. I often sweat ahead of meetings like this, but usually it's from the heat. This time, it was from nerves. I was about to meet a man I had heard much about. A man who I respected. A man who has a price on his head, and who has been on the run, living in hiding, since 2008.

He walked in. He had a big grin on his face, a childlike grin. He was happy to see me. I was delighted to see him, to meet him in person, finally.

We talked. He talked about the mafia in Italy; I told him about the mafias in Mexico. We talked about the history of mafias, their rise in the United States. We talked about what we would really like to write about as journalists, if we had a real choice in the matter. We exchanged pleasantries, polite comments about each other's books, about projects we might undertake in the future. He told me about his life in hiding. I told him that our meeting was a bit odd; I felt like I was meeting a mafia boss, whereas in fact I was meeting just another journalist.

We both admitted we don't like fame in our profession; journalists are not supposed to be famous, we both agreed. At least I can wander around wherever I want, I told him. Yes, he said; I have to deal with my security everywhere. I can't do anything normal anymore.

"I just want to buy a girl an ice cream," he said, softly.

After about 30 minutes, my meeting with Roberto Saviano came to an end. He got into a black car, surrounded by bodyguards provided by the Italian government since his ground-breaking book Gomorra, an expose of the Neapolitan mafia best known as the Camorra. I waved goodbye as he drove off to a new hiding place, somewhere in Italy, somewhere out of the line of fire of the men he exposed, the men who issued death threats after his book put the spotlight on their illicit activities and influence.

His car drove off, up the hill and out of sight.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chapo has been caught...

Chapo's been caught talking on the new iphone4 (http://www.apple.com/iphone/) in the hills of Sinaloa. He was apparently talking to Lindsay Lohan (http://www.tmz.com/person/lindsay-lohan/) about the new Harry Potter flick (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1201607/)

Joking, obviously, but trying to see if this will pick up hits for my blog, then maybe I'll start blogging again regularly.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mexico's image problem

Foreign Policy magazine has just published my piece on Mexico's image issues; check it out. (Link is in the title of the post.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How powerful is Chapo?

Interpol's chief representative in Mexico says that Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman Loera is losing clout, and no longer has such great control over drug trafficking out of Mexico. Patrick Corcoran has a good short summary at InSight (link in title of post.)

Wait, but wasn't Chapo the most powerful drug trafficker in the world just a few weeks ago, according to one DEA official? (I allude to it too in the title of my book, "The Last Narco, inside the hunt for the world's most wanted drug lord")

Here's the thing about the drug trade: it evolves rapidly. Chapo doesn't man the day-to-day operations of the Sinaloa cartel anymore (and actually, rarely did in the past, operating more like a hands-off CEO), but every time a new group springs up that might threaten his hegemony, he makes a move – an alliance or war. When La Familia sprang up in the early part of last decade, for instance, he let them operate and made deals with them so that their meth could be moved across the US border (being based in Michoacan, La Familia had a coastline but no direct overland route to the US). When he saw an opportunity in Nuevo Laredo – a weakened Gulf cartel – Chapo sent his people there to try and take that plaza in 2003. (They failed.) When La Familia started becoming more influential and powerful in 2006-2007, Chapo made a more formal alliance with them, effectively incorporating the smaller group into his organization.
When the violence produced by Los Zetas and other thugs in Tamaulipas got out of hand, Chapo and the Gulf cartel struck an alliance to crack down on them, with the greater good (well, from their perspective, which is drug trafficking) in mind.

With all these alliances, Chapo's control has expanded, but these are not cut-and-dry deals – the alliances shift, and he only purportedly steps in when absolutely necessary. So one could interpret the growing activity of other gangs as a sign that Chapo does not have as much control, but the reality is that in many cases, they operate with his blessing – so he's basically still in charge. However, there are clear signs – massacres and shootouts in Durango, for instance – that suggest he is not in control of these other gangs. Conflicts in Sinaloa, too, suggest he doesn't even have complete control of operations in his home state.

Chapo's operations are also certainly growing worldwide – Sinaloan drug traffickers have been arrested in a number of countries, ranging from Egypt to Argentina to Malaysia in recent years. Whether they are actual Sinaloa cartel operatives – ie, in the employ of Chapo himself – or lowly drug traffickers who happen to come from Sinaloa and are trying to make some money, is unclear. Some have been confirmed as actual operatives and conejos (scouts), others have not. Properties belonging to Chapo and his Sinaloa cartel cronies have also been seized in Europe and parts of South America, which points to an obvious expansion of presence, even if cartel operatives in this case are lawyers and money launderers.

As we've seen Chapo's operations grow globally, we've also seen the decline of his hegemony at home. This is unsurprising, in my opinion, because as he extends his empire, he's going to risk losing control of his base operations. If you're fighting a war on various fronts, expanding your business by acquiring new groups and at the same time facing pressure from the authorities (yes, contrary to popular belief, the Sinaloa cartel has been hit very hard by the Mexican authorities, lots of arrests and seizures, etc), you leave yourself vulnerable at home. You are putting resources and effort into foreign operations, while your base is being attacked. Recent conflicts in Sinaloa indicate that there is very little top-down control being implemented by Chapo and El Mayo in the region – their focus is obviously elsewhere.

The real question is what this will mean for the drug war going forward: will Chapo lose control altogether? He never has before, and has been in precarious situations in the past. But he's 54 years old now, and has been on the run for 11 years. And the situation is quite different today: the Zetas and La Familia are not tight-knit, organized units with which alliances can be easily struck. Both organizations are heavily divided, fractured even, and not easily controlled. They seem content to massacre migrants and shoot up innocents, no matter how bad it might be for business. And no one seems to be sending them a message to quiet down anymore, which Chapo and El Mayo used to do in Sinaloa.

I do envision Chapo losing control. I don't see the possibility of a pact, nor do I see him taking control back once he's lost it. I see the increased efforts to launder money and buy property outside of Mexico as a means of getting out while he still can. And the inability (or reluctance) to stem violence in Sinaloa and Durango on the part of Chapo and his crew appears to be a further sign of his diminishing power. That said, I think the Sinaloa cartel will continue to grow globally, and probably domestically, as a loose-knit federation (which is always how it operated in Sinaloa and its environs).

As for the violence, it's tragic, but I think Police Chief Genaro Garcia Luna is right in his assessment – it's not going to ease up for another 7 years or so. More groups operating independently will inevitably mean more disputes being settled through violence rather than dialogue (say what you will about the old guard, but they did have meetings and strike alliances that way); I also think the degree of brutality will increase, although that is indeed hard to imagine, because these groups will have to outdo each other to gain respect.

Oh, and for what it's worth, I still think Chapo will be killed before the 2012 elections. Again, it's just a hunch, I don't have any intel that would back this up.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sinaloa most-wanted

Some might find it amusing that when one clicks on the link to the PGR's list of Sinaloa's most-wanted fugitives, the page above (link in the title of this post) appears. Check it out and see.

Secretive or responsible?

Why didn't US officials who learned of Chapo's presence in Sonoita, Sonora, on Jan. 26, 2009, tell their Mexican counterparts?

According to a leaked document, the US authorities who suspected Chapo was there didn't say anything to their counterparts across the border. It reeks of conspiracy, keeping the Mexicans out of the loop on something like this. But it also reeks of reason and good judgment. According to a US Justice Dept. indictment, Chapo and his associates met for three days at a ranch in Sonoita. So first off, the US officials alerted someone higher up in their own chain of command, otherwise this never would have made into a federal indictmnt. Then there's the reason for Chapo's supposed meeting: after El Vicentillo's arrest, they were angling for revenge on the authorities. In Sonoita, they allegedly discussed the possibility of "orchestrating attacks against US or Mexican government buildings," according to the indictment. They were also allegedly plotting attacks in Mexico City – effectively, not Sinaloa cartel turf – in order to shift the authorities’ attention toward the Beltran Leyva brothers, who base some operations there.

What would have happened in officials in Arizona had alerted their local or state counterparts in Sonoita? Well, imagine the following scenario:

Arizona cop: Oye, compadres, I've got a tip for you. Chapo is apparently at a ranch just outside of your town.

Sonoita cop: Que bueno. Gracias for telling us. We'll go check it out.

Ending A: Local cops phone Chapo and tell him he's on the radar, and should leave town.

Ending B: Local cops actually try and raid the ranch, to become heroes. Their corpses are left at the roadside, accompanied by a message: Don't mess with us.

Either way, I wholeheartedly back the decision not to tell the Mexican cops anything in this instance.

Friday, June 17, 2011

El Lazca dead?

The Brownsville Herald is reporting that Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, a.k.a. El Lazca, has been killed in a shootout between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. El Lazca is the alleged leader of Los Zetas. I predicted a while ago that he'd be the next to fall, but have to admit that I thought he'd be captured by the authorities, not killed in battle. More to come...

Link to the Brownsville Herald story is in the title of this post.

UPDATE: Most reports are now debunking this Brownsville Herald story. El Lazca appears to be very much alive.

Chapo, the most powerful drug lord in history

A DEA official has declared Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera the most powerful drug trafficker in history, ranking him above Medellin's Pablo Escobar in terms of clout and staying power.

Since writing The Last Narco, I've had a few opportunities to get a little deeper into the Chapo story. For instance, I recently met a man who knew Chapo's mother, Maria Consuelo Loera Perez. He met her in La Tuna de Badiraguato, the family pueblo, in 2006. He showed me a few photos of her – she looked kind, stern, wore glasses, looked like an ordinary mom, a typical (if a bit more light-skinned than usual for those parts) Mexican mother from a mountain pueblo.

According to my source, the man who met her, she is. Just a normal lady, he said, nice. Friendly. Tough.

Chapo's mother lives in a finca in La Tuna, which her son built for her. It's a pretty splendid place, particularly when compared to the tiny one-story, dirt-floor homes that most of the pueblo's residents live in. She's managed to stay above the fray in throughout the drug war, only talking to reporters on two occasions (once to denounce human rights abuses and another to complain about the arrest of another son, Miguel Angel, a.k.a. "El Mudo." (The Mute).

When El Mudo was arrested, Loera Perez was quick to express her anger. "They took him away without any arrest warrant. He makes an honest living," she told reporters at the scene of the arrest, a Chinese restaurant in Culiacan. "I don’t believe that he dedicates himself to illegal activities... They arrested him only because he’s Chapo’s brother."

She sprang to Chapo’s defence, too. "He didn’t force one door or threaten anyone to get out of jail [in 2001], they opened [the doors] for him. It’s as if one opens the cage for a bird, it flies away. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Joaquin; I’m not in contact with him. He only helps good people. How can I feel bad, if I am his mother? A mother has to bear all the problems that her children bring, for this I will plead to God on their behalf – he’s my best lawyer."

I'm all for mothers springing to the defence of their sons, but when it comes to Chapo, I just wonder if she might be suffering from a bit of maternal denial. He is, after all, the most powerful drug lord in history, according to some.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The good things...

Mexico may produce meth, marijuana and heroin, but it also produces some wonderful things like carnitas. Thanks, Mexico.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jorge Hank Rhon

By now it's old news that Jorge Hank Rhon, the eccentric millionaire former mayor of Tijuana and controversial PRI stalwart, has been arrested on gun charges. The owner of Agua Caliente racetrack and various other establishments in Tijuana, Hank Rhon was arrested Saturday with 10 other people, for the possession of 88 guns, 9,298 rounds of ammo and a gas grenade.

As far as gun possession goes, I'm not surprised Hank Rhon has an arsenal like this, even if he denies ownership (his wife claims, on the other hand, that he has the appropriate licenses for them.) The guy lives in Tijuana, has a number of businesses, and has to deal with serious security issues that anyone who owns a business in Mexico would be well aware of.

But Hank Rhon is as controversial a figure as any in Mexico. There have long been suspicions that he has ties to drug trafficking (always denied and never proven; but as recently as 2009, a US diplomatic cable said that he is "widely believed to have been a corrupt mayor and to be still involved in narco-trafficking") and he has been accused of being the intellectual author of the murder of a muckraking Tijuana journalist. Still, he has always escaped serious investigation – he was briefly arrested in 1995 at Mexico City's airport in possession of endangered animal skins and ivory – and even made a run for governor of Baja California after his stint as mayor.

Hank Rhon is a character – at 55, he's had numerous wives and girlfriends and has 19 children; he once famously said that women were his favourite animals; he also has a zoo inside the racetrack in Tijuana which is home to crossbred lions, tigers, you name it. His father, Carlos Hank Gonzales, was famous for saying that "a politician who is poor is a poor politician," while Hank Rhon has famously claimed that he is so rich he cannot be corrupted.

But is Hank Rhon guilty of more than gun possession, if even that? Some PRIistas are accusing the authorities of a "witch hunt" ahead of the State of Mexico gubernatorial elections in July (State of Mexico is the Hank family and PRI stronghold). In spite of Hank Rhon's lackluster performance as mayor, supporters have turned out in Tijuana to rally in his favour. Hank Rhon, meanwhile, has now been transferred to the medium-security prison in Tecate, Baja California, after spending a few days in the holding cells of the SIEDO, the organized crime division of the attorney general's office.

There is talk that the authorities are trying to nail him on organized crime-related charges; if so, they had better have more evidence than just the guns. After all, authorities have tried to investigate Hank Rhon before, and it hasn't been easy. (Update: some of the guns apparently are military-issue – a serious federal offense.)

Still, as Hank Rhon told me during our interview in 2004: "I’ve always [said], 'Don’t pay attention to gossip, just find the proof, then come back'."

"The truth is, it’s what happens when you’re starting to become too popular and you step on someone’s foot...," he continued. "They find a way to neutralize you. But it’s always been allegations..."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Show us the money

Just to give a sense of how much money is involved in the drug trade, the Mexican military seized $500,000 in US currency from a Chevy truck that had been abandoned on the Culiacan-Navolato road just the other day. The guy just took off without his cash when he realized there was a military checkpoint nearby.

Since December 2006, the Army has seized $149 million in US currency, and about 263 million Mexican pesos (roughly $22 million US).

Needless to say, that's a fair amount of cash.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What's new and what's not

Back in Mexico, I'm hearing again that the cartels might be coming to Mexico City. I'm also hearing a few other scare stories that are being passed off as "new."

1) The Sinaloan narco-corrido ban is not all that new a thing. As far back as 1998, authorities have tried to ban narco-corridos. First reported effort was in Chihuahua, the effort failed.

2) As early as 2008, El Universal has run stories addressing the fear that narcos are "surrounding" the capital. Indeed, they have the capital surrounded. But that doesn't mean they want the capital for anything but a place to hide. Chapo and the Beltran Leyva brothers used to call Mexico City "el humo" (the smoke) because it offered anonymity that one couldn't find elsewhere. But they don't really want to take over turf here, in large part because the police force is so strong (and present – there are about 70,000 cops in the DF) but also because the city has well-established gangs that are hard to break into. Tepito, for instance, is considered a no-go area for drug traffickers. They can make deals with the local guys, and pay them to do work, but it's menial. Lastly, Mexico City is neither a major distribution nor transport center for trafficking – only important thing about it strategically is the airport.

3) The Mexican government says catching Chapo is a "priority." I'll believe it when I see it.

4) Mexico is not a failed state. It has one of the strongest economies in the world, job creation was nearly a record last year, FDI is up. Mexico certainly has serious problems, but it's not on the verge of collapse. Guatemala, on the other hand, might just be.

To be continued...

Tijuana police and striptease

An incident occurred in late May, in Tijuana, that I chose not to comment on at the time because I was just frustrated by the news. I'd heard these stories so many times before, and I thought, christ almighty, do we have to read about this again?

The reality is, yes, we do: 15 police officers in Tijuana, after arresting a man and a woman for possession of drugs, forced the woman to do a striptease in exchange for her freedom.

This is obviously a terrible example of abuse of power. But also, it highlights what is horribly wrong with the Mexican police system, at its core. Most of these cops do not get paid well, we know that. Nor are they very well-educated. Nor do they receive praise for work well done – ie, a bust of people in possession of drugs. Nor do they have the ingrained sense of integrity that, say, a Chicago street cop has. So what do they do when they see a situation they can exploit? They exploit it.

This isn't the first time we've seen stories like this, obviously. The one that springs to mind always when these issues come up is that of Victor Gerardo Garay, the AFI commander who was plucked by the DEA as a man to make things happen. Garay was fed intel by his US counterparts, was lauded within the AFI, was a right-hand man of Genaro Garcia Luna's. He made some major arrests – including the takedown of some of the Arellano Felix brothers. Then he made a major bust – a bunch of Colombian narcos with strippers, hookers, cocaine etc at a narco-mansion in Desierto de los Leones.

Did he get a medal for his efforts? A pay raise? A ceremony in Los Pinos? No. Instead, he and his men threw themselves a roaring party the night of the bust, taking advantage of the hookers and cocaine they had seized earlier in the day.

Herein lies one of the most serious problems in the war on drugs in countries like Mexico, where integrity is a novel concept to most police officers (and I don't mean that as a blanket insult, but it is true that integrity does not flow in the veins of most cops in the developing world. Even the US has its serious corruption issues.) Garay and his men knew something when they made the bust at the narco-mansion: they knew that making the bust would put their lives in serious danger, more danger than ever. They knew that night might be their last. They had a perfect right to blow off some steam. The problem is that they had no idea how to do it correctly; worse, they did not seem to care. Their supervisors should have promised them something – a raise, a bonus, some sort of recognition (even if only in private) to make sure they felt proud enough of their achievement to carry on to the next day's challenges.

But no. When a Mexican cop makes a big bust, he doesn't get a medal. He doesn't meet the president. He almost always gets tarnished in the media as corrupt (after all, how could he have gotten the narco if he wasn't in the pockets of a rival narco?) and his potentially good name is slandered/libeled. I don't know the stats, but I would be willing to bet that a good number of good cops lose their marriages as a result of their work, too. So there's really no reward for doing your job well except for the rewards you give yourself.

Police reform needs to go further than just bettering the police force capacity to coordinate, to filter intel, to pursue suspects. It requires a conscious effort on the part of the authorities, the powers that be, to ingrain within the police corps a sense of honor, of duty, and to also reward those who stand out in their accomplishments with something, anything. Invite them to Washington for special training. Give them a grant to further their education. Pay them bonuses. Give them something, or they will continue to reward themselves however they see fit at the time. And that won't likely be something we want to read about or hear about.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A few media quibbles

I figured I'd blog today about a few things worth clarifying in the media that I continually read that are wrong...

1) There is no concrete figure pertaining to Chapo Guzman's worth. Forbes listed him as worth $1 billion, but there was no methodology used to figure that out. The number was pulled from thin air.

2) The 90-percent-of-guns-used-by-Mexican cartels-come-from-the-US figure comes from a tracing program enacted for about a year between the ATF and PGR. There were a few thousands guns used in homicides in Mexico traced back to the US. That's where this number comes from, it's an estimate extrapolated from the results tracing program.

3) Proceso claims that Chapo was married in Durango, El Mayo Zambada claims that story is untrue. You decide who to believe.

4) El Chapo is not in Liverpool, contrary to headlines of stories quoting me quoting a source saying the Sinaloa cartel is believed to be shipping drugs there.

5) Badiraguato, the town, is different from Badiraguato, the county. Chapo is from Badiraguato, the county, not the town.

6) I was a General Editor at Newsweek, not THE editor. Mexican newspapers don't tend to distinguish between the two, but there is a big difference, and well worth noting.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chapo in Argentina

Proceso has a good story this week about Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel's empire establishing itself in Argentina. One of the notable parts is expert Edgardo Buscaglia talking about why the Sinaloa cartel would set up production and distribution networks in the southern cone. The reason, Buscaglia tells Proceso, is to "diversify" and "minimize risk."

Indeed, this is what the Mexican cartels, not just Chapo and Sinaloa, have been doing in recent years. As early as 2006, they were getting meth precursors like ephedrine (by then, illegal in Mexico) shipped to Argentina and then brought all the way up north to make meth. Ephedrine imports to Argentina rose from 5.5 tons in 2006 to 28.5 tons in 2007, according to the DEA.

In addition, there were some major arrests on Argentine shores. On one occasion, two Mexican men who had recently entered the country were arrested with 750 kilos of cocaine. A judge investigating their case believed they were working for the Sinaloa cartel. They were allegedly planning to smuggle the cocaine to Spain, where it would have a street value of $27 million.

Another raid outside Buenos Aires had netted twenty-three Sinaloa-linked Mexicans and a meth lab in 2008: already then, the cartels were thinking of producing in Argentina rather than just using it as a transshipment point.

Violence has also accompanied the arrival of the Mexican cartels in Argentina. In 2009, three Argentines were found in a ditch outside Buenos Aires, their corpses riddled with bullets, their hands bound. The killing had all the hallmarks of a Mexican cartel-related execution. According to a retired DEA agent working in Argentina, the young men had tried to rip off their Mexican counterparts.

We'll see if violence increases in Argentina with these new reports of Chapo's people working there. Meanwhile, an Argentine press report that cites an anonymous official talking about Chapo having lived in Argentina in 2010, before heading to Paraguay, Colombia and then Europe, is likely BS. Patrick Corcoran has a nice piece on it at insightcrime.org, but I am not quite sure this story warrants any attention whatsoever. While it is possible Chapo has traveled in recent years, I'm not convinced it would be that easy for him to just jet around as the article implies. And from conversations with people who know way more about this than an anonymous Argentine official, I'm pretty convinced he's still holed up in Durango and Sinaloa, where he's safe and powerful. He can send envoys to Argentina and the like, rather than risk a visit himself.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Corruption at its worst

When we think of corruption, we tend to think of politicians, drug cartels, police etc. We don't usually think of soccer. But ahead of the FIFA election campaign, it's worth remembering Sepp Blatter and his FIFA empire. Rob Hughes has a great article on the subject of corruption within the FIFA ranks here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/sports/soccer/27iht-SOCCER27.html?_r=1&hpw

(Link is also in title of the post)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Banning narcocorridos

Sinaloa Gov. Mario López Valdez has introduced a reform to ban narcocorridos in his state, a state where corridos are hugely popular among the young and old, and which sometimes, and I emphasize sometimes, highlight the exploits of criminal elements like El Chapo Guzman.

Under the new law, establishments who allow narcocorridos to be played or performed by bands will lose their licenses.

This isn't the first time the authorities have sought to ban narcocorridos in Mexico. According to Sinaloan writer Elihah Wald, who has researched narcocorridos extensively and written at least one book about them, there have been calls for censorship of corridos associated with drug trafficking or the crime world ever since Los Tigres del Norte hit with 'Contrabando y Traición' and 'La Banda del Carro Rojo' in the 1970s.

Calls to ban narcocorridos have "intensified in recent years," according to Wald. On his web site, (link in title of post) he lists the many attempts to crack down on this brand of music. He also expresses some interesting opinions on the crackdowns. Some of them I agree with.

The authorities are sorely misled if they believe that narcocorridos are in any way related to the deep-rooted issues they apparently don't want to address. Narcocorridos do not turn young people into narcos, they simply celebrate rebellion and people who make a living in a world where the government and ordinary business don't allow them to operate or succeed. Banning the songs won't make the kids think of getting an education or a job; providing them with genuine opportunities and jobs will. The Sinaloan government is wasting its time in this moral battle, when it could be trying to think up positive ways to improve Sinaloan society, the economy, education, etc etc.

The Sinaloan government is also taking a risk with its ban on narcocorridos. It is outlawing one of the few freedoms of expression young people have, essentially a way of voicing their discontent with their situation without actually resorting to violence or crime. Take that away from them, what will they be left with? Nothing.

Lastly, banning narcocorridos is a mistake because many narcocorridos are often not just odes to crime bosses, but to the people, to the reality of what is happening around them. In many parts of Sinaloa, bands perform tributes to the deceased; they write and sing about what is happening around them, as journalists do. Take Omar Meza, for instance, a local from Badiraguato who I met a few years ago while there researching The Last Narco. Omar sings about what's going on around him. He doesn't really glorify the narcos, but he sometimes does mention them in his tunes, because they are involved in the events occurring.

Here's one of his corridos, or ballads. Will the authorities decide to ban this one, because it talks about them in a bad light?

‘Tragedy in Santiago de los Caballeros’ by Omar 'El Comandante' Meza

People of Badiraguato, the blood flows again
For the four lives who couldn’t defend themselves
Their families and friends couldn’t believe it
They were heading to a party when the soldiers came out of nowhere
Without any motive they fired their rifles
And how surprised were they the men were unarmed
Sinaloa is in mourning for this situation
La Joya de los Martinez already lived the same terror
Reckless soldiers
more dangerous than a lion
Assassins through error, there will be a simple repercussion
These are published news stories on the radio and in print
All we ask for is justice assassins without conscience
This is your farewell
goodbye Geovany my friend
because that’s how he wanted your destiny to be
Grandmother, mother and brothers never forget that I love you
And that I’ll protect you when I find myself in heaven
I will continue on the path of my father and my grandfather

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rapper glorifies El Chapo

So the New York rapper, Tony Yayo, has decided to put El Chapo on the cover of his new album. (It's on itunes, called "El Chapo" if you want to not buy it.)

I used to sympathize a little with rappers who wrote about drugs and dealers, the street life they had grown up in, because it drew attention to the plight of many young minorities in the United States. But this is pushing it way beyond the limit.

There's a lyric in Yayo's song "Orange and black caviar" which goes: "A little drug money never hurt nobody, El Chapo 18 cars..." (I think it's cars, or he could be referring to carats, as in gold, not sure)

A little drug money never hurt nobody? Really? 40,000 people dead and climbing. Beheadings on a daily basis. Hundreds of migrants kidnapped and executed at a time. Top police commanders killed. Innocent teenagers and children killed intentionally and in crossfires. I could continue...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Good piece on Tamaulipas

Alfredo Corchado has an excellent story in the Dallas Morning News from Nuevo Laredo. (Link in title of post.) As always, his reporting is top notch.

What's most interesting about the article to me is once again, the role perception plays in this whole drug war. The people of Nuevo Laredo, and other parts of Mexico, increasingly see the cartels as in control of government, or as "virtual parallel governments," as Corchado describes it.

I've found this to be true in various parts of Mexico, from Sinaloa to Michoacan to Chipas to my own neighborhood in Mexico City, where local PRIistas took advantage of local proprietors whenever they had the opportunity.

Of course, they weren't armed, vicious thugs calling themselves Zetas and running into town beheading people. But once again, I think perception is the biggest problem. When there is no clear law and order, when the authorities can't be trusted to keep order and peace let alone leave the public alone, you get a sense that everything is falling apart and in the words of one US official I talked to a while back about Tamaulipas, that there is "no law."

Anyway, read the Corchado piece. It's solid stuff.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Who's most-wanted now?

Following the fall of Osama bin Laden, is Chapo Guzman now the world's most-wanted man?

Well, to clarify all the chatter, there really is no such thing. Forbes named him the 2nd most-wanted fugitive in the world a while back, but that doesn't mean US authorities are now scrambling to find the gomero's son from Sinaloa. Chapo isn't even on the FBI's 10 most-wanted list. Through the US State Dept., the DEA did issue a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture in 2004; that order still stands.

As a face of the enemy, as Sam Keen might have put it, Chapo is probably now the most-wanted man in the world. The Australian authorities are talking about him as if he was personally responsible for delivering all the drugs consumed in their country, and throughout Europe, his name is starting to become known. In the US, people know about him and I've even encountered some folks who believe he's a rebel of sorts, to be admired – they've made t-shirts and painted canvases of his face.

But I don't anticipate a massive push to catch or kill him, except for what the authorities are doing right now. The authorities know full well that his death or capture won't end the drug trade or drug war. They also know that, like bin Laden, Chapo is now more of a symbol than hands-on leader. His people work in his name, and put up narco-mantas from Culiacan to Juarez declaring his might, but even if he were gone tomorrow, they'd keep trafficking drugs, keep killing their rivals and innocent people, and disrupting the social order.

Still, catching Chapo would be a massive political boon for Calderon. Like Obama, he would gain ground in polls; he would be able to quiet critics who say he's made a pact with Sinaloa. Calderon would not be able to claim an end to the drug war, but he'd be able to close a chapter on it, as I've said before. So all in all, it'd be well worth going after him ahead of the 2012 elections, rather than letting him retire in peace.

Friday, April 29, 2011

No results in drug war?

Benjamin Arellano Felix, one of the reputed leaders of the now-defunct Tijuana cartel, was extradited to the US today. Benjamin, with his brother Ramon, was allegedly one of the most ruthless drug lords in Mexican history. He and his bro had a bloodlust that led them to kill random civilians in Tijuana just because they felt like it, according to DEA agents.

Benjamin was captured in Puebla in 2002. He's one of the most high-profile suspects to be extradited during the Calderon presidency. Seeing him being led onto a plane on his way to a maximum-security prison in the US, it's kinda hard to argue that this administration is doing nothing to fight the drug war.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Failed state?

Is the US a failed state?

According to one commonly used definition, a failed state is "a dysfunctional state which also has multiple competing political factions in conflict within its borders or has no functioning governance above the local level."

Looking at the US the way a foreign correspondent (or a US Embassy staffer writing a cable back home) might look at Mexico, you get this impression:

Congress appears increasingly dysfunctional, with both parties trading blame on budget issues and refusing to move out of gridlock. U.S. President Barack Obama and congressional leaders struck a last-minute deal to avert a total government shutdown. Opposition parties remain at odds and in conflict, in spite of the recent agreement.

President Obama is struggling to convince an increasingly skeptical public (and opposition) that his leadership is legitimate, and is also having difficulty winning support for wars that he inherited but on which he has taken a commanding position.

A top business leader in the country has called on the president to prove that he is not a fraud, and is indeed a US citizen and well-educated.

Education remains a serious problem throughout the country, in spite of good intentions by the new administration. "Teachers' Unions Failing U.S. Schools" read one recent headline by Time magazine.

According to reports in the Wall Street Journal and other reputable local newspapers, "secessionist movements" are on the rise, as American citizens increasingly resist government influence. Although crime is, by and large, down, homicide rates in Washington DC and Atlanta are worrying. There have been efforts made by the authorities to persuade residents that foreigners (Mexicans, in particular) are to blame, but it appears that local demand for drugs is at the root of the problem.

Corruption remains rampant along the border. A sheriff in Texas was arrested for aiding the drug cartels, while a mayor in Columbus, Ohio, is also being investigated. Currently, there are hundreds of federal agents (FBI and Homeland Security, mainly) being investigated for alleged ties to the drug cartels. Reforms to clean up the institutions have been promised, but given past efforts, this is unlikely.

A former top anti-organized crime prosecutor and sitting governor was linked to a prostitution ring, and forced to resign. While the resignation was a positive sign, the fact that he wasn't arrested is disconcerting. Confidence in the US authorities' ability to deliver on promises to root out corruption and criminal behavior by public officials is at an all-time low.

Efforts to crack down on money-laundering remain fruitless. Banks who have been found complicit in organized crime have simply been asked to pay large fines and apologize, rather than be shut down as they would be in Mexico.

The war on drugs is proving costly, and public support in the US has waned to the point of absolute boredom. The US government has spent more than $1 trillion since launching its war during the Nixon era, and has failed to capture one single "capo," or cartel leader. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the usual suspects have been arrested. Consumption continues unabated. The US authorities continue to insist that drugs in the US are distributed only by gangs, but when a Mexican or Colombian is arrested, the defendant automatically belongs to a "cartel." Given the amount of resources being spent by countries like Mexico on the war on drugs, not to mention the lives being lost, the US authorities need to be doing a better job.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Corruption and hypocrisy

Ok, so in Mexico these days, we have an increasing number of politicians, pundits and journalists calling for an end to the drug war, an end to the use of military force in particular. The current strategy isn't working, they say, the violence is simply increasing. The people want the military off the streets and back in the barracks, they say.

Valid points. The violence is increasing. Tamaulipas, in particular, is getting much worse. (The Washington Post has a grim read on the so-called Highway of Death, the main road through the state.) The calls to end the use of military force (which the authorities argue is the reason for the increased violence, remember – the military crackdown and arrests have turned the cartels on each other etc etc) have more than a ring of sanity to them.

Many of these same critics of the drug war also accuse the Calderon administration of collusion with the Sinaloa cartel, and making a pact with Chapo Guzman. There is evidence, some of them say, that former Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino sent an envoy, a general, to meet with Chapo himself and orchestrate said pact. The Mexican government cannot negotiate with drug traffickers, the critics scream, or it will be just as corrupt and evil as the narcos themselves.

But aren't the drug war critics themselves in essence calling for a pact? Sure, most of them are arguing that social programs, education, addiction/rehab programs and the like are the priorities. Which is all true and good. But to pull the military out of the drug war would be to allow the drug trade (in Mexico) to continue unabated. It would mean to either turn a blind eye to the drug trade (and all the monstrosities that come with it – beheadings, killing of innocent people etc) or to be complicit in the trade, as many officials from the PRI were in the old days (and to be fair, many members of all of Mexico's parties probably still are today).

There is no way the drug trade would cease if the military was taken off the streets. The police cannot handle this sort of organized crime. And the people of Mexico certainly can't be burdened with the task of taking on the narcos themselves through denuncias anonimas.

So, sounds like the critics are asking for a pact, even if it's not negotiated outright, it'd be implicit.

There's a weird hypocrisy enveloping much of Mexico these days regarding the drug war, in my opinion. For instance, I constantly hear journalists crying out about how you can't trust the authorities, then they use testimony taken by said authorities to prove that the authorities are corrupt. So can you trust the authorities or not? You can't, for instance, call Garcia Luna corrupt in public or in a book using testimony that was taken by the PGR and then thrown out by them because it didn't warrant serious investigation and then call the PGR equally useless and corrupt. Well, you can, but you come across a bit like a naive fool and your argument wouldn't stand a chance in court.

Of course, any thinking person would realize that it's not black and white, that some testimony is more valid than others, that just because you "have the documents" doesn't mean those documents are worthwhile or would hold up in a court, or that they give you the right to scream in public that someone is corrupt. (Well, actually I'm not 100 percent sure about Mexican freedom of speech laws, maybe one does have the right to shout accusations like that in public).

I think all journalists should be somewhat suspicious and skeptical, and I know that Mexican courts still leave much to be desired, but I think journalists should be wary of simply taking the easy route and blindly accusing the authorities of all being corrupt. That sells books, it sells magazines and newspapers, but it doesn't get you one inch closer to the truth or democracy. And it honestly doesn't help Mexico one little bit. There are people in the government, people like former Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, for instance, who actually are trying to improve their country's judicial system, its investigations, its systems of law enforcement. Journalists should be doing the same, not simply trying to cash in by throwing accusations out to see what sticks. (On another note, they should also press officials etc whenever possible to answer for serious allegations – ie, staged arrests or military abuses.) Using the word corruption so loosely is not only dangerous, the word loses its value when it actually matters.

When writing The Last Narco, I came across a source (Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, the former SIEDO prosecutor) who claimed the DEA and US Embassy had helped Chapo escape in 2001. I was skeptical of his claims, but given his previous position as an authority, I reported it. I also checked with DEA for their response. I was shocked by part of their reaction, which was "Thanks for calling to ask." Well, of course I asked. I was trained as a journalist to ask for comment before accusing someone of something as atrocious as that. (I should also add that I was raised as a kid to think before I speak.) I don't care whether it is true or not, or whether I have evidence or not, the accused has a right to answer the accusations in person or on the phone before publication.

Former President Vicente Fox, on the other hand, has resorted to posting messages on Twitter in answer to journalist Anabel Hernandez's claims that he received $20 million in return for Chapo's escape. "Anabel Hernandez is always... trying to sell books at the expense of others. If you have proof, show it. Or be quiet..." reads one.

I don't really care whether you're a fan of Fox or not, or whether you disagree with his governing of Mexico, his handling of the Oaxaca mess, or whatever. If you accuse him of taking $20 million for Chapo's escape, and you claim to have proof, show it! Show it on TV when you are doing all those interviews! Why has no one asked Anabel Hernandez to show this proof? Why didn't Carmen Aristegui, one of the country's best journalists, ask her to show the proof? We all want to see it! (And don't get me wrong, I also admire her work as an intrepid journalist, and her courage in writing the book. But I just want to see proof of such massive corruption.)

After my book came out, a bunch of Mexican papers and magazines (Proceso included) called me asking about certain allegations in the book. One misquoted me, saying that I accuse the DEA and US Embassy of doing a deal with Chapo (rather than my source claiming it). They also pushed me to say that Garcia Luna is corrupt, when I have no evidence of that, nor do I make the claim. I simply noted some available testimony (incidentally, some of the same testimony Anabel Hernandez used in her book) and noted the appropriate denials. If I had solid proof, I would have written a front page story for the New York Times and I would be a Pulitzer prize winner by now. A couple of journalists have also tried to push me to say I've been threatened by the authorities. I haven't been, that's that. No one has threatened me in the slightest.

Folks, pushing people to say such things just to rile up public opinion against the authorities because you have an agenda is just bad journalism. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's corrupt journalism.

Let's stick to the hechos, not just the dichos, to paraphrase Mr Marizco at borderreporter.com

Alejandro Suverza

Still no news published in El Universal on Alejandro Suverza, their intrepid reporter who was arrested with lots of undeclared cash heading for Cali, Colombia. I hope the editors are involved in backroom negotiations with the authorities, because it'd be a tragedy if they just washed their hands and let him hang.

A group of journalists have sprung to his defense, meanwhile, at the link above in title of the post. They've also set up a Facebook page on his situation. We'll see if either have any effect.

More news when I know something.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

And now for the story of the day...

Got nothing to add. Nicely done, Mr Marizco (borderreporter.com) with the scoop.


For those who still don't believe

The young woman cuts, slowly, with her machete. Through the skin, through the veins, through the entire neck. Then she takes her knife and delicately carves the young man's face off. Her nickname is The Crazy Blonde. "This is what happens to those who help Los Zetas," says a man in the background.

I just watched a video of a beheading, conducted by a young woman. I usually shy away from this stuff, having seen one or two before years ago in the Al Qaeda days, but I wanted to watch this one because it's believed the be recent, and I've kinda forgotten just how dismal the situation in Mexico is right now. This makes it hit home even if you're not there in the midst of it.

The calls for the drug war to end are mounting. The military stands accused of thousands of rights abuses. The violence isn't stopping.

Fair enough. But watch this video, and I challenge you to deny that someone has to take these people on. This sort of atrocity cannot happen in a modern society, a modern democratic nation, a member nation of the OECD, a country that ranks 56th in the world in the human development index.

This sort of barbarity is medieval. It has no place in the 21st century. The army may not be winning the drug war, but until the police in Mexico are ready and able to take on this sickness, I still think it might be the best possible option.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Here, why don't you have a go

Christian Science Monitor has an interesting story about a new initiative the Mexican government has launched which would reward anonymous tipsters who lead the authorities to drug traffickers and their money. (Link in title of post)

"Mexicans who tip off investigators to money launderers will receive up to one-quarter of the illegal funds seized," writes Sara Miller Lana of CSM.

Good idea going after the money, pathetic that the people are being asked to do the work that the authorities apparently can't or simply won't.

PS - The anonymous hotlines set up in various troubled cities have been quite successful, excepting the fact that dozens of residents have been threatened or even killed in Tijuana, Culiacan and Ciudad Juarez after daring to give anonymous tips by telephone (the cops simply relayed their phone numbers to the narcos.)

The biggest capos

According to federal police chief Genaro Garcia Luna (speaking at a press conference today), the biggest drug lords in the country today are Heriberto Lazcano, "El Lazca", Miguel Treviño Morales, "El Z-40" and "of course," Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

Well, nothing we didn't know, right?

But wait. What about Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, aka, "El Azul"?

This is a guy, if you recall, who was No. 2 in the Juarez cartel at the same time as he was No. 3 in the Sinaloa cartel. He's known as a consiglieri, a peacemaker, a negotiatior, a silent hand of power, always discreet and in the background. Without him, I doubt the Sinaloa cartel would be as powerful and widespread as it is today.

If I could retitle my book, I might call it The Second to Last Narco, because more and more, I get the sense that El Azul is gonna be the guy to take the reins of the drug trade in Mexico in the future, once they catch those on the list above. He may well be the last of the guard left standing.

But no one will know about him; even the authorities aren't mentioning him anymore. Always in the shadows, always maneuvering, always staying out of the limelight, always staying on top. That's El Azul.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Man detained at airport not just any old man

The federal police on Saturday detained a Mexican man at Mexico City's international airport trying to leave the country with $57,000 hidden in various parts of his suitcase, El Universal reported today.

This is nothing unusual, except for the fact that the man is not just any man, but a former El Universal reporter, Alejandro Suverza Tellez. He was well-known for his stories about narcos; the last story he wrote for El Universal was a piece on Feb. 4, 2011, about the Mexico City metrobus.

Was he guilty of something other than trying to take an illegal amount of money out of the country?

I honestly have no idea, nor do I have a hunch of any sort. I met Suverza once, in a hipster Mexico City bar. He was surrounded by young women, and seemed like the kind of guy who enjoyed the attention his stories brought him (who wouldn't? it's not as if the money for a Mexican journalist is great). He'd been to Michoacan and interviewed a leading member of La Familia, for instance; everyone was enthralled by that story. He was a tough looking guy, looked like he came from the streets, looked like he could hold his own in narco-territory. He gave me tips about how to report in Tepito, too.

You could tell he was a journalist pretty much right away. He wasn't a gangster; he didn't look rich to me. He certainly didn't appear arrogant. At times during our conversation, he came across as quite compassionate.

Was he in with the narcos? Is that where the money came from? Or was he simply a reporter eager to get the hell out of Mexico, where his only hope was to cover the drug trade for the rest of his life? (Suverza's not the sort of guy who gets promoted into the upper echelons of the Mexican media, ever.) Had he saved his money legitimately, only to try and take it out of country illegally?

When reporters who cover narcos get killed in Mexico, almost inevitably their name gets sullied with rumours that they were linked to the very same people they covered. Likewise reporters who cover any other sordid element of society. (In fact, this isn't just true of Mexico, it's true of many parts of the world.)

I don't know if Suverza crossed the line, and I sincerely hope he didn't, for his sake, that of my profession and also my initial judgment of him as a person.

I also hope there is a serious investigation into where he got the money. I sincerely hope they find that he stashed it away under the mattress, hoping to leave Mexico one day, and that the only crime he is guilty of is failing to declare his cash upon exiting the country.

Lastly, I hope El Universal fully acknowledges its relationship with Suverza and works to get the truth out. If it doesn't, well, then it's no better than those in the government who issue promises to protect reporters who cover organized crime and then fail to deliver on anything.